Friday, January 31, 2014

Knattleikr: the Hurstwic Rules

Hurstwic is a Viking-age reenactment group in New England which plays a reconstructed version of knattleikr at some of their events.

Unstated, but evident, in the Hurstwic reconstruction is the notion that knattleikr is a member of the football family. As in football games, a ball is to be transported to the end of the field to score; unlike most, the players are also equipped with sticks, which are used both to start the plays and to impede the progress of opposing players. Given their placement of knattleikr in relation to other games, it's a great reconstruction - simple, but with the essence of the family in place, and with rules that make sure the ball will periodically be struck with the sticks and fly across the field.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger and the Modern Folk Music Landscape

Pete Seeger broke folk music.

Born in 1919, Seeger was a communist, labor-rights activist, WWII veteran, folksong collector, singer, songwriter, banjo and guitar player whose best-known band, the Weavers, gave birth to the folk music boom of the mid 20th century. Were it not for Seeger, American traditional music would remain a niche interest, ever fading. Were it not for Seeger, American traditional music would not be politicized. Were it not for Seeger, the twelve-string guitar would be virtually unknown in America.

The Rock Island Line is a mighty good road
The Rock Island Line is the road to ride

Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. His legacy in American folk music will forever be complicated, for how he at once rescued it from perpetual obscurity and inadvertently distorted the entire tradition to match his own tastes and politics.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Scant Evidence Available to Would-Be Reconstructors of Knattleikr

The Sagas and other early sources about Viking-age Scandinavia make it quite clear what recreational activities the authors of those sources considered most typical, and we have enough evidence to make a stab at reconstructing each one. The popular board game hnefatafl is a matter only of debate about the precise details of certain rules, which likely varied from one group of players to another anyhow, and other forms of tafl vary from it primarily in the precise size and original layout of the board. The popular sport of knattleikr, on the other hand, has far less detail available to us today from which to attempt to discern the rules. We're quite able to come up with conjectural answers, of course - but doing so rapidly becomes a perfect case study in the application (and, likely, misapplication) of outside notions of what the range of possibilities even looks like, for the details provided to us are scant.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Burns, Modernity, and the Folk Process

We've seen examples many times before of artists who rework folkloric material in a literary manner, to suit their own preferences. I myself have done so many times, both in condensing the longer ballads I translate into performable versions and in taking things I know from multiple sources and deriving a version which I eager to perform. On this blog, we've seen at least two examples of one of the most prolific poets to make extensive use of this tactic: the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jokes of the Ancient World

A student dunce, after dreaming that he stepped on a nail, is bandaging his foot. His colleague asks why, and upon learning the reason, observes, "No wonder they call us dunces! Why on earth do you sleep barefoot?"

 - Philogelos 15, 4th c., William Berg trans.

The "student dunce" is Berg's translation of scholastikos, a university student; by reputation, they weren't especially bright. These characters feature in many of the jokes in the book. Other translations give the term as "egghead" or, playing to modern stereotypes, "professor;" Berg uses "student dunce" throughout.

There are older references to books of jokes, and there are isolated jokes preserved in writing from earlier centuries, but the 4th-century Greek Philogelos, or "Laughter Lover," is the oldest jokebook text which still survives. Some of the jokes continue to amuse, while others serve only to shed light on what cultural commonplaces of the book's own era could be mined for humor. The aforementioned stupidity of students is one, and similar things are said about the people of Sidon. Here are a few more examples:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Dietrich von Bern

The German legends of Dietrich von Bern are known to us only through literary sources - epic poems about him, the Old Norse Thidrekssaga (itself drawn from German material), mentions of the character in the Nibelungenlied (best known through Wagner's operatic adaptation, in which Dietrich also appears), and a few other sources. But the differences between these, and their distance from the historical characters on whom the legends are very probably based, make it clear that there was a widespread oral mythos surrounding Dietrich long before they were committed to paper.

The legends tell us that Dietrich is the heir to a kingdom in Italy, centered on Bern (Verona), until he is deposed by his uncle Ermenrich. In exile, Dietrich has a great many adventures; in most of the extant material, these are quite fantastical in nature and often include battles with dragons and other beasts of myth. (The episodes themselves often seem to draw on Tyrolean folklore; in some cases parallels are known with stories that are otherwise told about characters other than Dietrich von Bern.) At some point in the process, he arrives at the court of a king named Etzel, and either swears fealty to him or arranges an alliance; Etzel's army then conquers Bern and restores Dietrich to his throne.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Prestidigitation and Culture

The methods of magical performance are not usually seen as examples of folklore, but they have many of the same properties as a traditional story or ballad. Until recent times (and sometimes still today), techniques are passed along primarily orally, from one performer to another; many of the details of patter and other elements that make for an effective performance are also a result of each performer learning from what they have observed and selecting the elements which work the best for them. And so as with a lot of traditional material, effects pass through the years, sometimes lasting centuries but never quite passing on unchanged.